WASHINGTON (The Hill) — The stunning FBI search of former President Donald Trump’s Florida residence this week has inspired a fierce backlash on the right, fueling concern among experts about the escalating risk of political violence. The response among Trump supporters has ranged from sharp criticism over the Justice Department’s tactics to outright incendiary rhetoric, with Trump himself comparing the search of his home to the Nixon-era burglary of the Watergate complex.
Some of Trump’s most fervent backers described this week’s legal development as reflecting a country in the midst of civil war, and in isolated cases, some far-right extremists called for mobilization in response to what was depicted as an act of tyranny by lawless federal agents. Although the FBI’s search was based on a warrant approved by a federal judge, that did not stop Republicans from claiming the probe arose from a desire to damage President Joe Biden’s main rival rather than potentially criminal conduct linked to Trump.
“The GOP’s choice to turn a probe into the mishandling of classified documents into a cause célèbre is dangerous, particularly given Trump’s history of calling on private violence, mobs, and militias for support,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “A democracy cannot allow anyone to be above the law.”
It may be unsurprising that a criminal investigation linked to Trump—the de facto Republican Party leader and a possible 2024 contender—would spark an impassioned response. At the same time, even the most provocative political speech, short of inciting violence, enjoys broad protections under the First Amendment. But outrage over the FBI search of Trump’s home comes at a particularly tense moment in American politics, as the share of partisans who think violence is sometimes justified to achieve political ends has grown significantly.
According to researcher Nathan Kalmoe, around one in five partisans say violence by their own party is at least a little justified to advance its goals. “More partisan violence looks likely in the future, especially in response to particularly tense moments like the one Trump has escalated here,” said Kalmoe, a professor at Louisiana State University who has tracked the rising support for political violence.
In the immediate aftermath of the FBI search at Mar-a-Lago, a swift backlash arose from a chorus of voices across the right. Experts said that a specific, concerted plan for real-world action hasn’t emerged, but warned that officials should keep a close eye on the tense online vitriol.
One prominent alt-right figure, Jack Posobiec, posted a series of inflammatory posts this week on Telegram, including one with more than 62,000 views that the “federal security state has declared war on Donald J Trump and his supporters.” According to Alyssa Kann, a research associate at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, some of Posobiec’s messages have been posted on domestic extremist channels, where users are also talking about taking up arms, mobilizing, and targeting the FBI.
The incendiary posts haven’t been contained to fringe sites. Posobiec, who has 1.8 million followers on Twitter, tweeted Wednesday that “Our government has been taken over by a Deranged Eunuch Class. It is up to us to displace them and dismantle their corrupt apparatus.”
Steven Crowder, a conservative commentator with 1.9 million Twitter followers, tweeted Monday night, “Tomorrow is war. Sleep well.” Twitter has not taken action on those posts or the accounts. A spokesperson for the company did not respond to a request for comment.
The violent rhetoric is spreading across alternative social media sites too, such as Gab, Parler, and Getter, which boast little to no content moderation policies and attract right-wing audiences—especially users banned from the mainstream sites. Collectively, the posts that have emerged online, across platforms, highlight a “nice little shopping list of far-right narratives,” said Jared Holt, senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). “It’s like a big firehose of incendiary content that has kind of blown back towards the news item in these spaces,” he said.
Even as the rhetoric has grown more intense, the distance from the political fringe to the political mainstream has shortened. According to Kann, inflammatory rhetoric that once may have been confined to fringe sites and from far-right figures has been embraced even by politicians with large followings on mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook, a dynamic which “emboldens” far-right influencers to be “even more violent,” she said. “It also mainstreams that sort of violent rhetoric to the everyday person, which is really scary to think about.”
Outspoken far-right lawmaker Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) tweets have added to the right-wing chorus, with the political firebrand calling to “defund” the FBI, casting the raid as “tyrannical” and likening the situation to action in a “civil war.”
Shannon Hiller, executive director of Princeton’s nonpartisan Bridging Divides Initiative, which seeks to track and mitigate political violence, said American politics was in a “sensitive moment,” one that called for leaders to tamp down tensions, not heighten them. She pointed to Govs. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas as examples of Republican leaders who, though critical of DOJ’s lack of transparency, had expressed their views without further inflaming political discourse, unlike some of their GOP colleagues.
“I do think that other GOP leaders who wink and nod to extremist rhetoric are playing with fire,” she said. “We know from other research that leaders calling for calm and rejecting violence has a positive effect on reducing risk. That’s what we should be calling for from all our leaders now.”
Trump, for his part, has continued to use his megaphone to ratchet up the temperature. On Wednesday, the former president suggested, without evidence, that federal agents had planted evidence on his property, again depicting himself as the victim of a shadowy “raid.”
Legal experts refuted Trump’s depiction of the FBI operation and underscored the stakes of the investigation — as well as the backlash. “Even though a judge issued the search warrant for Trump’s home, which requires a finding of probable cause that a crime was committed and that evidence would be found on the premises, Trump and his supporters are going on the offensive and engaging in heated rhetoric that DOJ has somehow treated Trump improperly,” said Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan, who spent seven years as a federal prosecutor during Barack Obama’s presidency. “It is amazing to me how many people are willing to take the bait.”
“I think the risk of civil unrest is very real, but DOJ cannot let that fear prevent it from enforcing the law,” she added, calling the Jan. 6 attack a “sobering” reminder not to underestimate “the threat of political violence by those who support Donald Trump.”
Experts noted a key difference between online posts ahead of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and the fallout from the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago. While the run-up to the January 6 attack saw the emergence of a specific plan, posts circulating online this week have lacked the same concerted tie to a specific time and place.
At least not yet, said Holt, of ISD, who added that the security situation would continue to be closely monitored. “We’re starting to track some calls for protests, we’ve seen a couple kind of floated around, but nothing’s really centralizing at this point,” he said. “There have been at least a couple instances where this has inspired extremists to call for protests or call for mobilization. We’re going to keep an eye on that and see how that evolves.”